You’re out on your lunch break, hurrying along the street to get a sandwich. In your peripheral vision looms a man sitting huddled, begging and dirty on the pavement. What do you do? Do you avert your eyes, dip in for some change or greet them with a polite apology?
I am usually one of the glazed pedestrians who shuffle past and mentally block out the few seconds it takes to pass him or her, and I know deep down that I’m probably employing a wilful suspension of empathy.
When I walk past a homeless person, I – and many others, I imagine – block them out, or force myself to think that being homeless surely isn’t as sh*t as it looks, that they know how to cope with it better than I, that they are from a different walk of life, that they somehow deserve it, that they brought it
on themselves? And besides, if I
stopped for every homeless person I saw, I'd be forever stopping. And that allows me to walk past, once again, when really a fiver or a cup of tea won’t make a big difference to my day, but might do to theirs.
But I’m not sure how long I can continue to ignore the obvious. Homelessness levels in this country have reached shocking new highs, and are being exacerbated further by local government cuts. The number of homeless people in Worcester has risen by 60 per cent in four years, but housing-related support has been cut by almost half. Torquay council has warned that dozens of homeless people will die on the streets if their supported housing budget is slashed. Hertsmere borough council revealed that in the past year alone homelessness in the borough increased by 51 per cent. From Mansfield to Exeter, Northampton to Crewe, Kent to Glasgow, hopeless homeless stories abound.
And those we recognise as “homeless” – the people literally sleeping rough in the streets – are only the tip of the iceberg. According to the latest government figures on homelessness, released today, 2,100 families without a home in England were living in emergency bed and breakfast accommodation, the highest number for a decade. In addition to this, total number of families living in all forms of temporary accommodation in England at the end of September rose by five per cent on the same time last year. These new statistics mean that nearly 85,000 children in Britain face the reality of waking up homeless this Christmas morning.
No matter how terrible the thought of being homeless is, the fact is that it’s very much possible to slip down a rung in the ladder and possibly fall off the bottom. Last year, Panorama’s Britain’s Hidden Housing Crisis showed how quickly the loss of a job or an illness could lead to a house repossession and as Wall Street banker turned rough sleeper Kevin Browne said: “Nobody ever really thinks anything good that happens to them in life is going to end.”
Although in today’s Autumn Statement George Osborne promised £1bn in loans for large housing developments and a raising of council borrowing caps for new homes, he also announced a new cap on total welfare spending and warned that the "vast majority" of housing benefit will be included.
The current welfare cuts and the soaring cost of housing means councils are finding it difficult to find suitable temporary accommodation for those who need it, a situation which has resulted in the current deluge of families in B&Bs or hostels and the hundreds more homeless people on the streets. Just as I need to face up to the fact that homeless people are individual human beings, the Coalition should get to grips with the fact that far more must be done to help those struggling to find affordable housing, those who are homeless and those in real danger of becoming so.